I kind of figured a lot of people would disagree with my post yesterday, in which I noted that the underlying idea behind what the Fine Brothers were trying to do in helping to support fans in making their own versions of the various “React” programs was actually a good idea. The point was that the idea behind it was actually pretty good. A big brand/entertainment property encouraging fans to make their own versions of their program, helping them with additional support, promoting those fan videos and helping them make money — in exchange for a cut of the revenue — remains a cool idea. Unfortunately, the idea came from a company that had a really bad history of overly aggressive behavior in taking down content, deleting negative comments and ridiculously and petulantly claiming that anything remotely similar to what they did was somehow unfair. The examples of them whining about Buzzfeed and Ellen having similar segments was particularly galling. On top of that, the trademarking of various terms, including the very generic “React” really pushed things in the wrong direction.
Many of you insisted that it was impossible to separate out these actions from the underlying idea of supporting fan videos — and you’re probably right. It’s good to see that the Fine Brothers have now completely backed down from the plan, shutting down React World and announcing that they’ve decided to drop all of their trademark claims. On top of that they’ve agreed to drop all of their ContentID claims on YouTube. At this point, that was the only thing they really could do, and it was clearly the right move. Their history of overly aggressive behavior really made it impossible to do something else.
But… I’m hoping that people can still separate out the core idea that was there behind React World, and distance it from the fact that it was being put in place by people who had too much bad history to make it work. I still think that it would be great if other big brands recognized the value in freely supporting fans in making their own fan works, and even allowing them to monetize those works. Right now, fan homages to books, TV shows, movies and more live in a nebulous world in which, if they get too big, or even try to make any money, the companies behind the brands often shut them down completely. If you want to do something professional — such as that big Star Trek Fan Film that is currently facing a lawsuit — it’s basically impossible. And that’s a shame.
But imagine if some of these larger entities took the same approach as the key parts of the Fine Bros plan: allowing anyone to make stuff, even providing them with additional assets including tools, graphics, guidelines, etc. And then even saying that they’ll help support and promote the best ones, in exchange for a cut of the profits? It could really lead to some cool new creativity from fans and more closely attach those fans to the originals. It’s that underlying idea that I found intriguing from what the Fine Brothres had put together — without recognizing how incredibly imperfect the Fine Brothers were as the individuals to deliver that message. So it’s good that the Fine Brothers have recognized their past errors and backed down on basically all of their more egregious moves (not sure about their aggressive comment deletion stuff, though). But I hope that this doesn’t doom any other larger entertainment property from entertaining ideas around supporting fans creating their own works, without upfront licensing fees.
Since late last week, we’ve been getting lots of inbound requests and submissions to write about The Fine Brothers, and the claims that they’re somehow trying to “control” or “claim ownership” on the concept of “react videos.” Almost all of the inbound requests are expecting us to trash the Fine Brothers for this apparent attempt to “own” something that can’t be owned, and we’re going to disappoint them. Having gone through all of the details, it actually looks like the Fine Brothers were legitimately trying to do something that’s actually… kind of cool. Now, before you rip off my head as well, please wait and hear me out. I will say that they could have been a bit more tactful about it, but I don’t think they deserve the intense hatred they’re getting.
There are lots of details here, but it starts with the Fine Brothers, Benny and Rafi, who have built up a rather impressive empire in creating amusing internet videos. They have a bunch of shows, many of which are crazy popular. Among the most well-known is probably the “Kids React” series, in which they film kids reacting to things (often “old” things that the kids may not be familiar with, frequently pop culture related). Personally, I like the one where kids react to seeing the very first iPod. Warning, if you’re older than, like, 10, this video may make you feel really old.
Anyway… this latest mess kicked off with a YouTube video where Benny and Rafi Fine act as if they’ve just cured cancer or something, they’re so excited for what they’re putting out into the world — a way for anyone to “license” their various show “formats,” like Kids React:
And, right off the bat, I can totally understand why people were at least a little concerned about this. We’ve all spent enough time dealing with big successful entities using “licensing” to mean “we’re going to stop you from doing stuff unless you pay us.” And, honestly, the video above does feel a little weird with the two of them acting as if they’ve just done the most amazing thing in the world for their fans. I think the other problem with the way they announced this is that they’ve probably been so deep in the Southern California/entertainment world where questions about “licensing formats” for TV shows is something that’s understood by everyone, that they just used the same terminology, without realizing how that would play with basically everyone else in the world, especially among their fan base. Again, to most people “licensing” means taking someone else’s money and “formats” sounds like they’re claiming ownership of any kind of reaction videos.
Here’s what they probably should have said they were trying to do: “Hey, everyone, we know we’ve got lots of enthusiastic fans who love our react videos and want to make their own. And now we’re going to help you make those videos, help promote them and even help you make some money off of them! Yay! Isn’t that exciting?”
Here’s what they said instead: “Hey, everyone, we’re going to let you license our “React” intellectual property. Also, people who copy our videos are bad people, but now you can do it if you license from us! Isn’t that totally exciting?”
Here’s what everyone heard: “Hey, everyone, we own “reaction videos” and now if you want to make your own, you have to give us a cut or we’ll shut you down, because you’re bad! Isn’t that exciting?”
The problem was that they focused on the mechanism (“licensing!”) rather than the benefits. They’ve been pretty clear that they’re not looking to shut down anyone. And all the claims from people saying that they’re claiming “ownership” of reaction videos is wrong. Yes, they’ve trademarked some stuff, but trademarks are not copyrights or patents. And, yes, while there is trademark abuse, there’s no indication that what they’re trying to do here is abusive. Actually, it looks like a pretty good idea.
They know that lots of people make similar reaction videos. And a lot of those people are their fans. But rather than shut them down and rather than demand big licensing fees, they created this (somewhat unique) program, where they’re giving a license to anyone who wants it, and with that license, you get a variety of benefits, including graphic elements and (importantly) the ability to have the Fine Brothers help promote and monetize your videos. They take a cut (looks like a pretty small percentage actually), but that should be worth it for many people, who probably wouldn’t have many opportunities to monetize the videos by themselves.
So, rather than use intellectual property to limit people (especially fans), this effort looks like it’s designed to do the opposite. It’s offering ways for fans who make their own videos to be considered “official” videos. Imagine, for example, if LucasFilm did the same thing, giving a sort of stamp of approval for people making fan Star Wars films — and would even let them release them, just as long as LucasFilm got a small cut? That would be kind of cool.
Now, there is some, potentially valid, concern that the Fine Brothers have attempted to trademark some of the names of their shows, and those trademarks could potentially be abused. Additionally, the whole “people are stealing our formats!” claim in the video above just comes across as silly. Finally, there are at least some examples of absolutely stupid takedowns that may have been made by the Fine Brothers or by people working for them. And those are all certainly issues to be concerned about — and the Fine Brothers should have perhaps realized that those issues were going to come up, especially the way they presented this.
But, going back to the actual licensing program, it’s not that crazy by itself. A trademark is pretty limited in what it can prevent here, and it really doesn’t look like they’re trying to take down generic reaction videos — and the fact that they’ve publicly insisted they’re not intending to do so would clearly hurt any actual attempt to do so later. The takedown pointed out above was stupid, and pretty clearly fair use, but was using the Fine Brothers’ original work (it was a video of him reacting to one of their Kids React videos). Again, it was a really really dumb takedown that they shouldn’t have done, but is a separate issue from this licensing program for people creating something different entirely.
Similarly, a lot of the criticism is that there’s nothing special or unique in “reaction videos” and that plenty of others have done them, even predating the Fine Brothers. That’s true — and this is where the misunderstanding of “format” outside of the cozy Southern California entertainment world comes in. What they’re talking about is building off of the larger reputation associated with the shows themselves — something the Fine Brothers actually did build up beyond just generic reaction videos — including a general setup and script for how each of the videos goes along with the graphical elements that accompany the shows. Most other reaction videos don’t follow that same format — with multiple people looking at a laptop or a piece of technology, with the quick cuts between different folks, and the captions and explanation bubbles and whatnot. I’m not saying any of that is brilliant, but it is the kind of thing that, when packaged together, could certainly be a valid “format” for a show.
Again, if you separate it out, overall, this actually looks like a pretty cool idea for how an entertainment brand could (and probably should!) embrace fan culture and fans trying to build on their work. But, it was presented slightly awkwardly, with a focus on terminology not well understood outside of the entertainment business, and in a world where people are (so rightfully!) concerned about abusing intellectual property. And, the fact that the Fine Brothers have apparently done some stupid takedowns doesn’t help at all. Mix in a bit of Reddit mob behavior and you have a recipe for a massive overreaction.